English & EAL

How to get an A+ on your Like a House on Fire essay?

Mariam Awad

April 11, 2019

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Dissecting a collection of short stories can be very challenging due to the many characters involved, and the different themes. But what most students don’t realise is that almost all the stories in the anthology have common and overlapping themes. And that’s what you need to focus on when you’re building your essay. I’m going to go through one essay topic to demonstrate how you’re expected to dissect and plan the essay. This is how I planned my essays ate the beginning of the year when I was still struggling with writing an essay on short stories and wanted everything to be clear to me before I start writing so that I know exactly what I will be covering. Like A House On Fire is currently studied in VCE English under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Although many of the characters in like a house on fire are dealing with physical and emotional pain, it is their resilience that will be remembered by the reader. Do you agree?

So first of all, you need to highlight all the important aspects of this question.

Although many of the characters in like a house on fire are dealing with physical and emotional pain, it is their resilience that will be remembered by the reader. Do you agree?

Now that we have highlighted the important parts that the question is inviting us to discuss, we know that we need to mention characters who are dealing with physical and emotional trauma yet rise above their tribulations, leaving the readers hopeful and optimistic. In doing so, you’ve pretty much discussed everything the prompt wants you to, but you can always go one step further and have a rebuttal paragraph. What I mean by that is: find a character who is faced with physical or emotional trauma yet gives up and becomes trapped in his/her imperfect reality. That way you show the assessor your knowledge of the text because you show them that even though Kennedy focuses on the resilience of her characters, she also sheds light on the reality that some people don’t have the strength to recover from such traumas.

Detailed Plan

What I personally do after dissecting my prompt is have a plan of what I’m going to be covering in each paragraph. The aim for a high scoring essay is to cover 5-6 short stories, if you chose to cover only 3-4 then from my experience the maximum you can score is an 8/10.

I’m going to split my essay into three sections each covering a certain aspect of my prompt.

First paragraph:

Which characters struggled with physical trauma yet rose above it?

1- In ‘Flexion’, Kennedy explores the pain and anguish Frank feels as he fights his injury, determined not to let it destroy him through her use of linguistic imagery whereby the slimily of Frank ‘[clawing] himself up onto the machinery’ as he is ‘growling like an animal’ depicts the sheer resolve that he exhibits as he tries to overcome the physical pain and handicap that threaten his independence. Thus, his resilience becomes admired by the readers who realise that despite almost dying, he chooses to alter his imperfect circumstances.

2- In the eponymous story ‘Like a House on Fire’, the unnamed protagonist suffers from a herniated disc that hinders his ability to carry out his role as a husband and a father yet he chooses to alter his imperfect reality by working his ‘teeth gritted way up the stairs’ not once but twice, in hope of finding a solution to the stagnation taking place in his own marriage.

Second paragraph:

Which characters struggled with emotional trauma yet rose above it?

1- In ‘Waiting’, the protagonist is waiting in a cold clinic whereby she will be told that she has suffered yet another miscarriage. Despite the harrowing pain she feels and the feeling of something ‘ebbing away’ leaving her once again without a ‘viable’ child, she chooses to move forward and declares that she is ‘not a martyr, just someone who sees what need to be done and does it’.

2- Michelle in ‘Five-Dollar Family’, has to adjust all her dreams of Des becoming the perfect father and boyfriend when she realises, he’ll be going to jail. Thus, Michelle’s epiphany that ‘she is got everything this baby needs now’ and no longer sees any value in Des allow for self-growth and ultimately the ability to cope with single parenting.

Third paragraph:

Which characters are unable to show resilience and become prisoners of their imperfect circumstances?

1- In ‘Sleepers’, Ray becomes a sleeper in his own life in the aftermath of his break up. Unlike many of the short stories in the collection, Sleepers is one that does not end with the optimism of a new start but rather ends with Ray being trapped again in his life waiting ‘to take what was coming to him’ thus signifying the damage his loneliness has cost him; whereby his life has become a series of lethargic and meaningless events.

After planning which stories, we want to discuss in the essay, we can now begin the writing process. So essentially the most important part of writing your essay is planning it and making sure you understand properly what you need to answer in your essay.

Later in the year when you are doing EAL/English practice papers, it is quite unrealistic for you to create such a detailed plan considering the time restrictions. So, I will run you through how I planned my essay in an actual exam situation.

Fast plan:

So just like we did with the detailed plan, we highlight the important parts of the question that will need to be discussed in the essay.

Then you need to think of the stories that represent physical pain yet the characters rise above their tribulations:

1- Flexion

2- Like a House on Fire

Then you need to think of the stories that represent emotional pain:

1- Waiting

2- Five-Dollar Family

Then you need to think of the rebuttal story whereby the characters suffer but do not exhibit resilience:

1- Sleepers

So essentially in the short plan you just outline the stories that you would like to mention and split them up according to which aspect of the prompt they will be answering rather than actually writing dot points on each one. So your plan becomes less detailed but rather just an outline so you stay on track and do not ramble.

GOOD LUCK!!!

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